Monday, 28 May 2012

Spinach, strawberries, and the Society of Authors Children's Literacy Campaign

"Reading for pleasure" is a phrase we hear a lot. It's become a bit of a cliché and the real problem with clichés is that we stop thinking about their meaning. They lose their power.

The other problem with the phrase is that "pleasure" often implies less importance or worth. It implies that perhaps we shouldn't do too much of it, that we should make sure we've done the "work" parts of our reading before we deserve the "pleasure" parts. Reading for pleasure seems somehow more frivolous, epicurean, than reading for benefit, information, work.

It is not; and we fall into some dangerous traps if we think so. Reading for pleasure should come first. It is essential to reading at all. Let me explain.

Once, each of us had to learn to read. We were very young when we had to learn this activity which is difficult, unnatural, and for which we are not, in fact, evolutionarily programmed. There is no part of the brain which is "for" reading, though there are parts which are involved in the separate skills which reading requires. (See Maryanne Woolf's fascinating Proust and the Squid for details about the evolutionary aspects of reading in our brains.)

You cannot get small children to do something just because it's good for them. It has to be pleasurable. We need many hours practice to learn something so complex, and we simply will not get children to put in the hours if they don't enjoy it. Many children enjoy reading immediately because they find it easy immediately. Those children will sail through learning to read because they don't even notice they are learning: they are having too much pleasure. (Including the pleasure they derive from the act of succeeding itself.)

Other children, with differently wired brains - and remember that since our brains are not wired for reading we all have to "borrow" brain cells and connections from certain brain parts in order to find ways to reading success - will find it harder. They will experience early failure. Show me an adult, let alone a child, who finds pleasure in failure. 

For these children, being told they must read this text because it's good for them, because it's part of schoolwork, because they need to skills to succeed in life, will go no way towards them ever enjoying, and therefore ever adequately practising, the act of reading. They are being offered medicine, instead of food. Hard work instead of enjoyment.

By the time these children are around eight years old, they have seen their friends learn to read easily and wondered why they can't. They have discovered that they "can't", or at least can't easily or well. They now enjoy it even less and probably not at all. They switch off, find other ways to shine, and sometimes the way to shine is to become the naughty child, the disruptive one, the one that the other children love to watch getting into trouble. Or they hide. They retreat into a shell inside which every effort goes into avoiding reading.

Initiatives by schools and governments to get them reading will have absolutely no positive effect if the focus isn't reading for pleasure. You can thrust the exercises and worksheets at them, you can drag them to a reading session for ten minutes every lunchtime, you can even fill the library with books and make them sit in it, but if reading for pleasure is not the whole focus - the WHOLE focus - you might as well chuck the money and the effort and the books into the sea. Because they will not practise for the required number of hours. It's that simple.

This is why I talk about spinach and strawberries. Both are good for us. When we eat spinach, even if we also like it (as I do), we still eat it with a sense of "This is good for me. Its health benefits are more obvious than the pleasure of its taste." When we eat strawberries (or any other fruit you happen to love better), we don't do so thinking about the health benefits, merely about the fact that we enjoy the taste.

That's what reading should be like. Reading is fantastically "good" for us but we shouldn't be thinking about that when we do it. And, most crucially, we should NOT, please, please, please, offer reading to children as some kind of medicinal or healthy activity, even if, like spinach, it is. We should offer it purely as enjoyable. And our whole aim should be to find a book that a child will enjoy reading.

Because otherwise, why would he do it?

That's why I support, with all my heart and with the loudest voice I have, the children's literacy campaign by the Society of Authors.

That's why I recently agreed, proudly, to be one of the new Ambassadors for Dyslexia Scotland, at the invitation of Sir Jackie Stewart, who knows all too well what it is like to go through school feeling a failure because of failure to learn one thing: how print works.

That is why I write for young people.

And that is why I'm proud to write not books but strawberries. Because I know strawberries are good for you but I only want you to think of the taste.

I will be talking more about this in Glasgow on June 16th, where I'm doing the keynote speech for a conference aimed at parents who want to know more about reading and how to encourage it. Do come!


JO said...

This is a great post - have you been talking to Michael Rosen (he has a great blog, and often talks about helping children read)?

And - it can also help if children see parents reading for pleasure. If being around reading is something that happens at home. If stories and words and pictures are part of early playing. Brain-wiring plays a huge part, but so does playing with words in the pre-reading days.

Elen C said...

This is a subject very close to me. Members of my close family find reading very challenging (inc adults), if not impossible.
I worry most about a 12 year old and am thinking of paying him to read. e.g. 5 books a year at £20 each. I'd offer a choice of books that I think he'd love (want to get my hands on Anne Rooney's vampire series to check those). But, I worry that while the carrot is there in terms of cash, it might make reading feel like a job. But I think that feeling like a job is better than feeling like torture... Good luck with your work on this!

Rosemary Gemmell said...

Fantastic initiative - hope hundreds more young people find the magic in reading a good book.

Katherine Langrish said...

Couldn't agree more, Nicola!

Cat Anderson said...

Amen to that Nicola, it's what I tried to instill in teachers and parents for years as a speech & language therapist and what I still do as a children's bookseller. My first strategy is always to calm the anxious adult, get them to back off and stop trying so hard. Tough stuff though when they are so worried about their child.But you explain it so well, I will be referring people to this post a lot.

Ellen: have you left the following authors' books lying around (note the "lying around" not thrust insistently in hand)for this 12 year old: Robert Muchamore, Chris Ryan, Andy McNab and Craig Simpson. They never let me down, especially Robert's first book, The Recruit.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

Great post - and how right you are. Elen - I don't think paying will help much. It'll still be a chore. Our son (who loved to listen to stories, but didn't much like reading novels himself) was tempted to read by, of all things, the Radio Times. OK, so he wanted to know what was on the TV, but by the time he had read it in detail every week, he was doing a lot of general reading too. He went from there to masses of non-fiction. I had to buy books about shipwrecks and video game magazines - this was his passion and he's now a grown-up video game designer so it didn't do him any harm. I think boys often come to fiction later than girls. Sadly, you always meet the parents whose son has just read War and Peace at the age of ten, but I think that's the exception rather than the rule. I soon realised that just about any reading was good reading, so long as he was getting pleasure from it. Lots of strawberries, Nicola's right!

Squidge said...

As a parent volunteer at my children's school, I've often been tasked with the job of reading with the children. Thanks to both my love of books and of writing, it's not an onerous task.
This post struck SUCH a chord, because so many of the kids came to me with books they weren't enjoying; I particularly remember the 10yr old lad who was struggling - with a book about someone's dog dying. And the 9yr old who had to read a book about a bridesmaid's dress, simply because it was the right level for him.

A lot of the problem seems to lie in having to categorise readers into levels - there often isn't enough flexibility or choice offered to the very children we need to encourage to read. They are actually prevented from reading the books they are interested in.

And whatever happened to storytime in schools? Those last few minutes of the day when you listened to a story and heard your teacher do all the silly voices and always, always stopped at the exciting bit! That's one of the best ways of getting a reluctant reader involved...and maybe, just maybe, they'll want to pick a book up for themselves afterwards.

I've also found that to get a child interested in a book, you have to know all about it!'I've read that one - it's all about...really exciting/scary...had dragons in it...made me cry' goes a long way to sparking their curiosity.

So, yes, I'd go for strawberries every time over spinach!

womagwriter said...

Great post, and I whole-heartedly agree! Teaching a child to read ane enjoy reading is one of the Must-Do's for parents (along with, in my book, teaching them to swim and ride a bike).

My older son was bright and loved books but was lazy when it came to practicing reading (when he was aged 6-8). He didn't instantly get it and found it a struggle. I knew he'd love reading once he got going, so with the feeling that the end justified the means, I bribed him. I put all his books in order of difficulty and paid him a pound per book he read. At the end of the shelf was the 4th Harry Potter book - the first big thick one - and he was desperate to hear that (it was before the films were out) and I was refusing to read it out loud to him. I knew once he'd read all the others at £1 each he'd be able to tackle the big one. He got a fiver for that, and has never had his nose out of a book since. I don't pay him to read any more, of course, but my strategy worked! Hurray!

Sue Purkiss said...

All you say is very obviously true - but what I think you didn't address was actually how to get kids who find reading really difficult to enjoy it - of course you want them to, but how to get them to that stage? That's the Holy Grail! But perhaps that's what you're going to talk about at Glasgow?

Nicola Morgan said...

Sue, there are whole books written about that! I could probably write one but there's no way I have time to address it on this blog, which is supposed to be about writing! On the other hand, see the end of this comment...

Elen and Womag, I think it's a case of "if it works, fine", but it wouldn't work for all children and I'd hesitate to recommend it! I do think that worrying about a child's reading reluctance at all can be counter-productive, though I understand it's hard not to. I am by nature an interfering mother but I think the thing I am most proud of is that I didn't worry about my younger daughter, who wasn't a very keen reader and who turned out to have a form of processing deficit, an aspect of dyslexia. Now aged 22, she's very keen to read really stimulating books and she does. I'm proud of her reading and very proud that she asks me for ideas. And I absolutely know that if I'd put even a tiny bit of pressure on her at the age when she was finding some things hard at school I'd have turned her away from reading. As it was, she just had to come to it on her own, with me behind to catch her if she fell. I have many faults as a parent, but that's the thing I did well.

What did I do? I made sure books were there, that they didn't threaten her, that they were there for her if she wanted them. I let her know that if she started a book and didn't like it, she should stop, as I would. We read to her and her sister long past the time they could read for themselves. We just valued reading but did not value it more than music, or sport, or cookery. It was optional and a pleasure.

And that probably answers Sue's question!

Sue Purkiss said...

Well, up to a point, Lord Copper! all those things are fine for children who can read but don't seem to want to. But you do talk in your post about children with differently wired brains who find it extremely hard to learn to read; they need something more than having the right kind of books left lying artlessly about, etc. I used to work with such children, and never found any easy answers (or even not-easy answers!) and just wondered if you had!

Nicola Morgan said...

Sue, sorry, I'm totally snowed under. Such a big topic and really all I wanted to do was highlight the Soc of A campaign with something that's so close to my heart. But the question is so huge - rather like the question in an email I just received: "Can you give me some advice about getting published?" I just don't have time!

Sue Purkiss said...

Of course, Nicola. Didn't mean to be a pest - but it's an issue that's close to my heart, too. I never found answers, and I just get all excited when it sounds as if someone has!

Carol Christie said...

At my kids' school, their reading books no longer come home. They are asked instead to record what they are reading at home - and it's up to them what they choose. If it's the Clone Wars Character Directory (yawn) that floats their boat, then that's fine. They are encouraged to read what they like outside school, although they do still read "reading books" at school. Unlike in my day, however, at a very early stage these books are no longer part of a reading scheme, but real live books that you can buy in real live bookshops. My own reluctant reader is slowly realising that reading can be fun - often I'm in the tricky position of having to tell him off for putting his light back on after bed time to read, while actually wanting to punch the air!

Cameron Writes said...

A long time ago, when I was teaching infants, the favourite part of the day was the last half hour. It was story time when I read aloud to them, showed the pictures, asked the children to guess what was going to happen, recognise a word or a name; it was huge fun for all of us.
Years later, with a dyslexic husband, I did the same thing but with Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker books. He "came around" and started to read for pleasure.
Reading aloud even to other adults is an art that we seem to have lost although it is hard-wired into our race memories of sitting around the cave fires listening to tales.
This is a fantastic post and I couldn't agree more.

Cameron Writes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

I suspect a lot of reluctant boy readers DON'T actually want the Muchamores and Ryans (sorry Cat!). But in public they have to be seen with them. What some boys need is something less plot-driven and more focused on character, description, imagination ... even (gasp) something with a female heroine. I doubt they're offered that. My son's always read in that way, but there are definitely some books he'd only read at home!